Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Best of 2012

For an album that takes such care over the details - promiscuously sampling everything from "details of Asian melodies" to snatches of Japan's Ghosts - Maxinquaye has a famously diffident opening line. "You sure you want to be with me? I've nothing to give," sings Martina Topley-Bird, before Tricky demonstrates that he has "some many things I need to tell you, things you need to hear."

Clocking in at over an hour, and visiting more musical styles than the current Top Fifty - Black Steel converts metal into an alienated wistfulness, You Don't resembles reggae, Strugglin' would stand duty on an album of experimental electronica - Maxinquaye never wallows, stumbles or meanders. Held together by a loose narrative - there's a single relationship between two ambiguous characters that moves from discomfort, through erotic dependency into a powerful unity - the album has a similar structure to Tchaikovsky's ballet scores. There are variations, returns to themes, musical quotations and,  after the solos (Brand New, You're Retro, You Don't), a triumphant finale.

Perhaps it's the sinister undertow of the bass - sometimes funky, sometimes brutal. Perhaps it is the contrast between Topley-Bird's jazz inflections and Tricky's gutteral growl. Perhaps it's the honesty of the lyrics - Tricky really is exorcising his mother issues, and the descriptions of sex acts ought to keep Simon Cowell away from appropriating any of the tracks. But the occult magic of the central triptych (Hell is Round the Corner, Pumpkin and Aftermath) remains the most visceral deconstruction of dark sexual desire of the twentieth century. That it is followed by a typical intrusion, the upbeat diss, is typical of Tricky's mercurial humour.

Tricky's roots in hip-hop are not so evident in the textured depths of Suffocated Love or Ponderosa - it's impossible to imagine even the most sensitive rapper vocalising these emotions - but in the sudden lurches of Black Steel. It starts off as a Public Enemy cover version, but drops Chuck D's urgent clarion call to resistance for a more ambiguous repetition. The march of rap into the twenty-first century as the music of drab consumerism or, at best, broad wit or political anger is diverted into a far more English sense of doubt and hope.

Every track becomes a blueprint for a future music, still unheard, still awaiting consummation - You Don't doubles as a statement of confident brilliance and a satire of other musicians who can't even imagine following in his footsteps - and Maxinquaye softens towards the end, Topley-Bird's voice now calling to Tricky across the wastes of crackling percussion breaks and the click of guns. Slow, still, beautiful...

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